Animal Rights

How Evangelicals Can Recover Their Love of Animals

AnnaTamila / Shutterstock
Photo via AnnaTamila / Shutterstock

IN MANY WAYS, the modern animal-welfare movement was birthed by evangelicalism.

Given current-day categories and political alignments, this history is surprising. But evangelicalism’s concern for animal welfare began with John Wesley, who many consider the father of evangelicalism. Wesley offered weighty words about animals and their treatment by humans. In his sermon “The General Deliverance,” for example, Wesley laments the plight of animals subjected to human cruelty:

And what a dreadful difference is there, between what they suffer from their fellow-brutes, and what they suffer from the tyrant man! The lion, the tiger, or the shark, gives them pain from mere necessity, in order to prolong their own life; and puts them out of their pain at once: But the human shark, without any such necessity, torments them of his free choice; and perhaps continues their lingering pain till, after months or years, death signs their release.

In Wesley’s lifetime, which spanned most of the 18th century, animals played a central and visible role in most people’s lives. Animals were sources of food and clothing and means of transportation. Sadly, animals were also a common source of entertainment in various forms of brutal blood sports—including bull and bear baiting, dog fighting, and cock throwing. As plentiful paintings, literature, sermons, and tracts from the age show, cruelty to animals was as pervasive as the animals themselves.

The general understanding of animals at the time was gravely influenced by a Cartesian, mechanistic view of the world. The same disciples of the Enlightenment who envisioned God as a distant watchmaker also viewed the “lower creatures” as mere machines. Well into the 19th century, animals were viewed under the law, according to the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University, “as items of personal property not much different than a shovel or plow.”

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It's Time for Evangelicals to Speak up for Animals

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Barrett Duke didn’t grow up with pets and never gave the welfare of animals any serious thought. Then he met Rusty — the golden retriever who stole his heart.

Duke discovered what most animal lovers know: that Rusty was more than just a random assortment of cells wrapped in fur. He had a personality and intelligence and a will that was all his own. When he lost Rusty to cancer, it was like losing a family member.

“Rusty was such an incredible animal, it changed my perspective on God’s creation,” Duke told me.

Animal Rights Activists Push Vatican Not to Release Doves 'to Certain Death'

Pope Francis watches as children release doves from his window. Photo: Paul Haring, Catholic News Service/via RNS

After two doves released by Pope Francis and two young children were attacked by aggressive predator birds, a leading animal rights group called on the pontiff to stop what they called “outdated traditions.”

The Vatican regularly releases doves as a symbol of peace, and in multiple instances they have been chased and sometimes captured and killed by more aggressive fowl in the area. But Sunday’s events were more noteworthy because the scene of a seagull and a crow swooping in to attack the doves was captured by several of the photographers in St. Peter’s Square as a crowd of tens of thousands — including several thousand children — looked on.

Both white doves managed to escape their predators after a brief tussle, but it’s unclear what ultimately happened to them.

Remember the Dangerous Animals

Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
Father Juan Manuel Villar (L) blesses a dog. Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

This week, thousands of churches will host a “blessing of the animals” to coincide (more or less) with the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. I’ve been to several of these, and what I remember best is a lot of barking, bored cats, and uninspired sermons. Most commonly, the sermon follows something like this trajectory:  “My Mom/Grandmother/Elderly Friend has sweet little dog. She loves the dog very much. The dog loves her. That dog is the presence of God in her life.” This is followed by a round of not-completely-affirming barks and mews.

The problem is not that this all isn’t true — I’m sure that it is, including the last part. The problem is that it does too little to recognize the complex power of animals in God’s creation, or even in the life of St. Francis. The Saint, after all, engaged the dangerous animals, too, and most famously blessed a wolf. 

A National Emergency

WE’RE IN A national emergency, and it’s not swine flu. While we were being mobilized by an illness whose power was more media- than pathogen-induced, the fact that more than 100,000 people have been killed by guns in the U.S. since 9/11 seems to be just business as usual. Violence is clearly a public health crisis, yet our culture is ambivalent about murder.

This ambivalence is closely connected to the stories we tell about it. The recent film The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a good example. The movie does nothing more than most other films in the hostage-taking action genre subset: It makes us feel afraid, hits us in the face with imaginary bullets, and “resolves” the superficial good versus evil conflict at the film’s core with the audience’s surrogate (in this case Denzel Washington) becoming vengeance on our behalf.

We are so used to fictional violence as a source of fun that we are unable to see the continuum between the myths we expect in storytelling and the realities we are prepared to accept in real life.

The English writer Geoff Dyer says that “You have to be a stranger to the landscape to regard it as a view.” Maybe we should change our perspective on how we tell stories rather than hide from the truth by, for instance, boycotting violent films. I felt this while watching The Cove, which for me is the best film of the year so far. It offers a new vision of what a campaign documentary can be, in which intrepid oceanographers expose the slaughter of dolphins in Japan. The Cove is as exciting as the best thrillers—full of human drama and the vicarious inspiration we take from watching other people’s courage.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2009
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Woof! Alleluia! Woof!

Let all creation praise! Worried that your pooch won't come with you at the rapture? Anxious that the piety crowd might think your four-legged life partner is short on salvation? You can finally lay your burden down. Darling doggie can preach and prophesy with the best of them in a new "Proud Christian" dog T-shirt. Remember, "the one who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion" (Ecclesiastes 9:4). Made of 100 percent cotton in the United States by union labor, these American Apparel tees fit most dogs. Just imagine a sunny day in the park with Fido in his Jesus T, catching a John 3:16 frisbee. It's ... well, heavenly.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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Animal Ethics

I was happy to read your article in the May issue about food and the ethics of wise consumption (“Shopping for Justice,” by Bethany Spicher Schonberg). I was surprised, however, that the topic of animal factories and meat harvesting was not touched upon by Schonberg. I believe there are plenty of reasons to re-evaluate the way animals are raised, treated, and killed in the process of supplying us with meat. I also believe that the cost surrounding this process is often more than it is worth—tolls on the environment, water and grain to feed the animals, etc. I look forward to your presenting a balanced and erudite essay about these issues.

Eric Hanson
Santa Monica, California

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Sojourners Magazine August 2006
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Save the Chickens

Chickens have evidently found a soft place in the hearts of McDonald's management, who recently announced they will stop buying "debeaked" chickens for use in their McNuggets and other McDelicacies. ("Debeaked" is the technical term for…well, you know.) The fast-food behemoth also insisted on fair coop standards that will give hens at least 72 square inches of space each. They also demanded an end to the practice of withholding food and water to increase egg production. Apparently, the eggs no longer justify the means.

"Big companies are increasingly being held responsible for the practices of their subcontractors—like Nike and other sneaker makers with plants they don't even run in Third World countries," says financial analyst Bruce Raabe. "This should be seen as a company trying to get out ahead of a potential problem and turning it into a potential asset."

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2001
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